The 2017 Northwestern football season is almost upon us. It feels like just yesterday that Pat Fitzgerald and the boys were celebrating a Pinstripe Bowl victory on the field at Yankee Stadium, but now nine months have passed and it’s time to see if Northwestern can capitalize on last year’s success.
In the lead-up to the season, the Wildcats have become a dark horse candidate in the Big Ten, slotting in right under the big four of Ohio State, Michigan, Penn State and Wisconsin. There’s been massive optimism surrounding the program for a couple years now, even after suffering back to back 5-7 campaigns in 2013 and 2014.
For once, the optimism might actually pay off and here’s why:
1. Look at the schedule
The schedule isn’t incredibly easy, but it is front loaded. Non-conference should be fairly doable (*aggressively knocks on wood*) with Nevada and Bowling Green coming to Ryan Field and a matchup against the Duke for the third straight season. Duke slotted in at 72 in S&P+ last year, but Nevada and Bowling Green were 124 and 111 respectively.
However after that comes the seminal moment of the season. September 30th in Madison, Wisconsin. Win this game and a Big Ten title game is well within reach. But even if Northwestern loses, an easy cross over schedule could let them make up ground. Penn State is tough, but it’s at home. Maryland and Michigan State should both be wins. Add in that the Wildcats only play five road games all year and there is a blueprint in place for success.
2. Another year of Clayton Thorson
Clayton Thorson’s first year under center was..... interesting. The team was great, winning 10 games, but the offense was one of the worst in the country. Last year the team’s overall win total regressed, but the offense shot up the rankings, due much to the improvement of Thorson.
2015: 50.8 completion percentage, 1522 yards, 7 touchdowns and 9 interceptions
2016: 58.6 completion percentage, 3182 yards, 22 touchdowns and 9 interceptions
Thorson doubled his yardage and tripled his touchdowns. While that sort of insane jump probably won’t happen this year, he’ll be better and he was pretty good last year. The loss of Austin Carr will be one to watch, but Thorson having more experience is only a good thing here. Another year will do nothing but help the redshirt junior improve even more.
3. Tyler Lancaster is a beast and a leader
Northwestern’s defense lost it’s leader Anthony Walker to the NFL and is currently fairly thin at linebacker, but luckily the rest of the defense is ready to pick up the slack. It all starts with the big man in the middle, Tyler Lancaster.
As we remind you basically every year, Lancaster is 6-foot-4 and 315 pounds. He is very large and strong, but he’s also freakishly athletic and is able to run opposing players down from behind. He doesn’t rake in the tackles or the stats like some other players, but that’s not always his job. At nose tackle, opposing teams almost always double team him, leading to an opening for another players to bring down the ball carrier. He also still does plenty of playmaking himself.
Perhaps more importantly is the fact that Lancaster is now the leader of the defense, No. 1 jersey and all. Lancaster along with fellow senior Godwin Igwebuike will be tasked with leading a defense that is young or inexperienced in a few places and they’re more than ready for the job.
4. The secondary is very good
While Lancaster has the front line on lock, the Sky Team is back and better than ever in the secondary. Igwebuike returns for his senior year alongside Kyle Quiero, while Northwestern also sports one of the best cornerback tandems in the Big Ten with Montre Hartage and a healthy Keith Watkins II.
There’s even some depth on the second team with Jared McGee, a solid addition at safety last season. Marcus McShepard is returning from wide receiver, and there are some promising young players. It’s going to be hard to throw on Northwestern in 2017.
5. Justin Jackson is still on the team
Probably the easiest reason to be excited on this entire list, Northwestern second all-time leading rusher is back for one last season. Jackson has been effective since day one and will continue to destroy opponents in year four. He’s improved every year, hitting career highs with 1,524 yards and 15 touchdowns in 2016.
You all know how good Jackson is at this point, there’s no reason to prattle on, so just enjoy the Ball Carrier’s final season in purple, one that might feature a trip to Indianapolis.